Pre-Modern Fantasy Cartography

If I had oodles of time, I would love to investigate the history of maps in fantasy stories and games. They are such an intrinsic feature of the genre, and seem to have gone through some fashions and styles over the years. Tolkien's maps set the tone for many years. Early Dungeons & Dragons maps and geomorphs had their unmistakable blue-line grids.

Recently it has become fashionable for fantasy gaming maps to be "photorealistic", a style I've enjoyed and tried out. You can see some of the results in my map for Maillon for Kobold Press. The style connects directly to our modern concept of what a map is, as conditioned by Google/Apple/Bing maps. It gives color and context, and an overwhelming sense of realism. It's like a satellite photo of this imaginary place, it is the place.

But, for me, that started to be a problem. One of the main reasons I enjoy tabletop games is that their visuals exist in our imaginations, summoned by the collective storytelling at the table. In the same way, pre-satellite cartography was intrinsically interpreted; it suffered and exalted in the subjectivity of the author. Those blue TSR maps evoked a sense of place, but required player effort to actualize. Accuracy and representation conflate with Google-style maps: the number of layers of abstraction reduce, the representation becomes the thing, player involvement is lessened.

It also complicates the relationship between the DM and the players. With abstracted maps, there is less of a chance of the map contradicting DM information. It's difficult to show a map to your players.

There's also something about the ease of creation of these styles of maps, using tools like Photoshop or WorldMachine, that started to bother me too. But I think that's probably a silly reaction.

But once I started looking at what I stopped enjoying about the Google style, I started thinking about historical cartography, the nature of exploration, and magical cartography.

Historical Mapping

The syntax of maps didn't sprout fully formed. Like language, it developed and changed over centuries. Early Western maps took a while to sort out things like annotations, viewing angles, etc. Maps were also scarce and expensive, and the processes of reproduction were flawed at best. Cartographers feared blank spaces, and added monsters and continents. There are lots of great books on the history of cartography. Head over to Powell's and grab some. It's a fascinating subject.

But what does this mean in a game? In the traditional swords-and-sorcery setting, the setting's technological level is often sometime between 300AD to 1650AD. Contextually speaking, maps at that time were distinctly not Google. They were highly subjective, highly inaccurate, and rare. But all the things that make early maps subjective and wrong are what makes them interesting for a game. They offer strange monsters, terrae incognita, and red herrings. As objects, they can become goals of entire story arcs. As artifacts, they can be worth more than treasure. They have embedded histories, clues to a meta-narrative your players can discover. A Google-style map cannot offer that.

The Nature of Exploration

So I decided to make a map. A map, as made by a contemporary cartographer, using whatever knowledge they may have. I decided to use the Midgard setting, because I like those guys. This is what I ended up with:


The first step was to figure out what I should map. It seemed to make sense to focus it around the central sea -- our cartographer might have been on a ship, exploring coastlines or as part of a mercantile journey. River mouths and mountain ranges would predominate. Coastal cities would be present, but perhaps information inland would be more sparse. Landmarks would be relative, not absolute, as they would be have been seen from sea level and not from space. The outlines of the landmasses would soften, as distances would collapse. See this "official" map:

The north coast of the south landmass doesn't look like it might support and lot of life, so our voyager didn't sail along it, only saw it from afar. The narrow strait at the east and the river it leads to take on great importance, as they probably were common navigational landmarks.

From the standpoint of a map as an artifact, materials also took on relevance -- what was this map made of? What pigments were used? What happened to this map?

Having asked these questions, I couldn't help but write about the map as well. But just writing about it, as I am here, didn't grab my imagination. Instead I decided to write about the map as if it were an artifact in a collection. This immediately lead to more questions: who was the collector? How did they get the map? Why do they collect maps? All of which implied, to me, the presence of a collector, and once that's established, we can safely assume that collector has their own layer of subjectivity. They become an unreliable narrator in the history of the map as artifact. The result is this write-up:



Magical Cartography

In writing up that catalogue entry, I realized that in the swords-and-sorcery setting, we cannot forget about the sorcery side of things. Sure, people sailed and journed around their world, making maps from human-height. But once we throw magic into the mix, what is to stop someone projecting from thousands of feet in the air? A magical satellite, if you will. Now mapping becomes something different -- they can become more accurate, and potentially more interactive. How would that play out in the world? What would traditional cartographers do to compete with magical ones? Naturally a lot of the answers to these questions depend upon the level of magic in the setting: low magic settings might have more mundane cartography, while a high magic setting might not have parchment maps at all. I felt that the Midgard setting, in contrast to the Pathfinder or Eberron settings, would drive some interesting conflict between the two modes of map-making.

This mode of investigation and making is very interesting to me. I hope to be able to follow up on some of the threads brought up in this map and its history.

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Excellent Article on Fantasy Cartography